July 10, 2012

Reflections on Art, Shadow & the Intersection of the Individual & Collective Spheres.

Dancer: Margie Gillis, Photographer: Michael Slobodian

Part Two.

For Part Two of this series, I wanted to take a moment to offer some meta-reflections on my inquiry into the dark side of the sacred as well as integrate the overall discussion on these topics with the subject of my next interview with choreographer and dance performance artist, Margie Gillis.

That is, exploring the role of art, art practice and the aesthetic dimension as it intersects with the dark side.

I’ve been very inspired through my connection to Margie and her art, as dance and movement have become increasingly significant metaphors that I’ve begun to use for describing my own deepening relationship and intimate exchange with the dark side.

The Dance of the Individual & Collective Spheres

When I think about my own path and journey—from as young as I can remember—I’ve always felt that I was being impelled by something much deeper than any personal motive or even any individual desire to have or find “my voice” in the world.

I realize that may sound strange, but the honest truth is that finding “my voice” was never, ultimately, the holy grail that my soul strove towards. Let me try to explain why.

First of all, I have to preface this by saying that finding my own voice has and continues to be important and essential to my own individuation process, just as much as it is to anyone else. But at a soul level, I’ve always felt that my own individual path was deeply infused and ultimately impelled by a force that was seeking to utilize me as a vehicle of service for its own purpose.

As this series—and many of my of my other writings—has made transparent, a big part of this larger calling I’ve felt has revolved around putting words and giving voice to aspects of our collective psyche and culture that have been either cast aside or left in unresolved contraction and conflict.

Particularly aspects that had been pushed to the shadows or segregated to labels of “individual neurosis” in an overly individualistic-oriented culture.

Of course, my own individual and personal path has remained important, and opening my personal path has often offered a gateway for others to enter a kind of intimacy with my words and writing in a way that a purely objective analysis or exploration never could.

My sense from all the feedback I’ve gotten is that the reason my personal writing has the impact it does is because it discloses an intimacy that is actually deeply collective.

There is a way that my personal investigations, when done well, open up collective inquiries, as well as expose shadows, wounds and traumas in need of attention in the larger collective field.

Those who have shared reservation about my writing tend to feel concern because they think that working transparently through shadow publicly is somewhat “incorrect”. They think that shadow work is something to be done privately—it is an individual process either done alone or in the confined walls of a therapist’s office.

In many ways, doing one’s shadow work publicly is still a cultural taboo.

I find this quite fascinating because I think this speaks to an interesting and somewhat artificial gap that has been created between the individual and collective spheres in North America particularly, but also spanning most anywhere in the world where modern consciousness has taken strong roots in the culture.

Of course the individual and collective are distinct, but they are also inherently connected, interwoven and always dancing together in the most intimate way. That’s why, in my own view, the best art comes from those artists who have merged their individual path so deeply in service to the collective that it actually becomes artificial to separate the two spheres.

This kind of merger of the individual with the collective is not a hindering of the individual artist, but it is a tempering of the individual in the sense that one starts to feel a deep care for their impact on others, and also feels that everything they do has implications for the larger whole.

Therefore, it does generate an increasing sense of responsibility and also relational love and sensitivity.

Yet, it is my experience that such a merger also paradoxically allows one to step more fully into who they are as an artistic being because one is continually contributing to the beauty and wholeness of something much larger than themselves.

This expansion to service outwardly has certainly been the most freeing act of agency in communion that I’ve experienced in my own life.

As, Robert Augustus Masters says, “Real freedom doesn’t mind its chains.”

Without a larger viewpoint and relational-aesthetic container to hold our individual explorations and artistic expressions of who we are, we run the risk of finding ourselves stuck in a narcissistic circling and masturbation of the self on the self ad infinitum.

These kinds of narcissistic individual explorations and expressions of self, although having the potential to be entertaining and creative in certain ways, I would argue are also limited in how deep and how far they can really take us.

Individualism is steeped in our way of thinking and being in modern and postmodern culture, and this runs deeper than most of us realize. There has been a massive shift to valuing the individual self in the West since the 19th century, which has also coincided with a massive commodification and commercialization of the self, affecting every sphere of culture and politics, including the spiritual domains.

For those interested, there is a very interesting documentary that you can watch free online called, The Century of the Self, which documents the rise of the self as we know it and the tandem rise of the commodification of the self in Western culture. Another great resource on this is philosopher and cultural commentator Thomas de Zengotita’s book, Mediated: How the Media Shapes your World and the Way you Live in it.

The emphasis placed on the individual psychological self has definitely played an important role in bringing more self-awareness to our culture, but I would argue that “individualism” as a latent underlying cultural ideology and consumerist trend has also curbed the deeper possibilities of a more intimate and transparent dance between the individual and collective spheres, in spirituality, politics, culture and art.

Individualism—I would also argue—has hindered the deeper possibilities of an open collective inquiry into the dark side because people tend to be afraid of exposing their own imperfections, shadows and limitations publicly.

We tend to view our shadows and vulnerability as a sign of personal weakness (at best exposed in the confined walls of a therapist’s office), rather than utilizing the deeper dimensions of our dark side as fuel for understanding and unhinging larger collective trends, blind spots and pathologies.

I was thinking of this in regards to the inquiry I’m engaging with this series, and the kind of work I’ve continued to engage in my writing and art. My writing and poetry has always been highly self-reflective and yet also attempts to move in and out of the individual and collective spheres in a way that aims to expose, explore and integrate aspects of psyche and culture that have been fragmented or banished from view.

In that vein, my writing and art practice has not been so much about finding “my voice” as it has been about finding “our voice.” Or perhaps it is better to say that finding “my voice” as an artist has always been inextricably connected with recovering “our voice” as a collective.

I take risks to put these inquiries and questions out into the public sphere because I intuitively feel certain areas in the collective psyche that have been left unresolved or in conflict, and thus contain a tremendous amounts of energy that has been bottled or stunted and is therefore being diverted into whirlpools of pathology that manifest in a variety of symptoms within the larger culture, as well as our individual lives.

My own inquiry into these darker hidden, forbidden or forgotten aspects of culture, and the collective pathologies they sometimes inspire, is also intimately interwoven with my own dark side, as well as the personal shadows, blind spots and pathologies I bring as an individual and as an artist.

Dancer: Margie Gillis, Photographer: Damian Siqueiros

My intent has never been to present a “clean” inquiry that is free of my own limitations or shadow. In fact, my intention is quite the opposite. I actually feel I’m at a place in my own journey where exposing my dark side has the potential to be utilized as grist for the collective mill, rather than simply being a mere narcissistic obsession or self-focused exhibitionism forced onto others.

My writings are like rough sketches, not polished answers, which are meant to spark inquiry, and ultimately healing, in areas that the rest of the culture too often relegates to “personal shadow work” and thus never gives it the breathing room to be fought out and healed on a larger collective scale.

As Krisnamurti once said, “It is absurd to try to normalize an individual into a sick culture.”

Rite by Barbara Bickel

My intuition is that we have to start thinking bigger in regards to how we see our own shadows and darkness, and also how quickly we may dismiss conflict with others by labeling things as “their individual projection” or “their personal shadow.” In my view, we think much to small about what darkness really is, and also where individual pathologies stem from.

Of course, I know that by putting myself out in the public sphere the way I do will invite all kinds of projection, but it is not my intention to simply dismiss those projections. I see it all as part of my karma to work through and to even listen to what the shadows are saying at a deeper level because in some way I am inviting them forward.

I’m also curious about anything that shows up to be worked with. In my eyes, anything is workable if it has the right container, conditions and skillful means available. I also believe that everything has the potential to be turned into art, no matter how dark.

The Role of Art and the Aesthetic in Healing and Transformation

“You [the artist] have an inherent capacity to ‘take-in’ impressions and have equally an inherent capacity to ‘transform’ those impressions and emotions imaginatively in art and science. It is a gift. Use it well. Fortify it…. Live in such a way that your creator-self is free to transform your unconscious. Portray it in others; you will, in the ordinary course of your own life, not escape the fate of other men so far as the basic conflicts of human development are concerned. But, preserve your sensitivity, your intuition and your gift. Above all, don’t fall in love with yourself. It is the least artistic–and most dangerous–of all human activities.” ~ Schneider, D. R. (1962). The Psychoanalyst and the Artist.

Daughters of the Alter of the Air by Barbara Bickel

If we simply attempt to transcend our darkness, our traumas, our pathologies, both as individuals and as a culture, in order to reach some higher elevated or spiritual state, don’t we just magnify our problems at both individual and collective levels?

This seems obvious. And yet, how do we create the best containers to hold these kinds of inquiries into the dark side in a way that can be truly transformative, and not just destructive? This is where I really feel the utilization of art, art practice and aesthetic spaces is so critical.

Exploring the complex, non-linear and sometimes irrational and chaotic nature of the dark seems best enacted through the liminal and arational spaces that art can open.

Whether through poetry, painting or dance, art offers us a doorway, a unique threshold, a flame of creative beauty that can turn our world up-side-down and offer us new channels through which to explore multiple aesthetic perspectives on any given situation.

Dancer: Margie Gillis, Photographer: Lois Greenfield

I’ve found the cultivation of this liminal aesthetic space through art nothing short of transformational and healing in my own life, as well as adding yet another dimension of beauty to the dark side.

My experience of art and aesthetic space is that it can literally unwind my mind and weave my awareness through every cell of the cosmos, therefore infusing my perspective with new intuitive wisdom, intellectual humility and flexibility, as well as a deep erotically charged care for the collective whole.

Art is my way of making love to the world.

It also allows me to surrender into these darker liminal spaces of the unknown, which offer me the richest resources for breaking down false dichotomies between self and other—individual and collective spheres—while simultaneously integrating them in a way that upholds the integrity of their distinction.

Art holds the paradox of this dance between seeming opposites, and it can also bring healing to the fragmentation we experience when we artificially separate polarities into black and whites, rather than letting them dance together.

I truly believe that any kind of healthy movement forward as a culture will have to include a more integrated and subtle understanding of the interaction between individual and collective spheres.

I also think we need to support artists who are trail blazing the creation of liminal, arational and aesthetic spaces for the wider collective, because their presence in the world is invaluable.

How would the world change if we developed a deeper appreciation for the ritual and aesthetic space that art can open for an entire culture? This is one of the many topics I explore with Margie Gillis in the following dialogue.

May our yearning for ever-expanding beauty be our guide.

Unfolding the Dark Side of Art: A Journey through Movement & Dance

Photo by Tamara Fiset

In the following dialogue, Margie Gillis and I discuss the role of the dark side as it shows up in art, and also the role of art in personal and cultural transformation. We explore the unique way that movement and dance can engage and guide us through the rich territory of the dark side and give us a channel for supporting transformation and growth.

Margie Gillis is a choreographer and performer of more than one hundred solo dance works, who has earned rave reviews in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and in South and North America. A passionate and steadfast artist, she has worked with the greatest dancers and artists of her time and teaches in different institutions such as the Juilliard School of New York.

Margie Gillis has been a Member of the Order of Canada since 1988 and she was appointed Knight of the Ordre national du Québec in 2009. Also, the Canadian and Quebec governments have each given her the honorary title of Cultural Ambassador. In 2001, in recognition of her exceptional contribution to national culture, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec awarded her their Career Grant. In May 2011, she received the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award Foundation.

Visit Margie’s website at margiegillis.org. You can listen to this dialogue here.


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D. Fisher



Editor: Carolyn Gilligan

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